Residents of an orange and wine-coloured multi-dwelling unit in Kimihurura have been sharing the complex for over a year, but have never exchanged more than a timid “hi” with each other. Several months after Vincent Cila and his roommate, Philemon Albert, have settled into their one-bedroom home, they are still hesitant to jump into the neighbourhood scene. The pair, both DRC nationals, have started going to clubs, attending concerts, frequenting local restaurants and hanging out with friends on a weekly basis. Everything but interacted with the people they share a living space with. “How have you lived here for so long and not developed a relationship with any of your neighbours?” Cila’s uncle had questioned him one evening while visiting. “We are losing community.” And that bothered him. He couldn’t recall ever coming across something quite like this before. As his uncle berated him, Cila slumped into his chair. The last time he had a “meaningful” conversation with a neighbour was the evening he had unlocked the gate for her when she’d left her keys inside and been stranded outside for nearly an hour. They never progressed beyond the dear old “hello” after that. During a conversation with the roommates, Albert began to explain his reason for not engaging with neighbours, then hesitated. Finally, “I don’t care enough to.” He had thousands of followers on Instagram after all and belonged to various online group chats. In the case of Fillette Uwase, one tenant, her childhood encounters with neighbours were not exactly fond ones. “I hated when my parents would insist that I entertain guests through dance and song performances,” Uwase admitted, the memory of those days drifting through her foggy mind. “For this reason, I’ve become a little apprehensive about meeting older people.” Overfamiliarity with strangers isn’t something that children have control over because more often than not, adults perceive kids as little humans who have no right to autonomy. These findings likely won’t come as a surprise to those who study social science. Dr Marie Paul Dusingize, for example, a sociologist at Institut Catholique de Kabgayi, suggested a few explanations. She specifically calls out the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity brought about by the emergence of the monetary economy and capitalist society. She says, “The only benefit of this shift can be seen at the level of efficiency and rationality in contemporary society where costs and benefits should be taken into account, which means you engage in interactions with others only in light of what you stand to gain.” The biggest unfavourable effect, among others, she says, is the decline of established social safety nets. In some localities, people used to leave their kids with family or neighbours, but nowadays you have to hire a babysitter, etc. Building structures could also be contributing to social isolation. The design of modern buildings makes it nearly impossible for occupants to develop close relationships with their neighbours. For instance, 84-year-old Agnes Nyirayeze, a resident of Gisozi, can’t help but notice the dynamics of modern society. She resides in a home that she has shared for many years with her son and his family. “In the past, we shared what little we had, especially food. Today, walls are high and have isolated people, hence you can’t even determine who is in need of a service or something,” she went on, “Even when they don’t, people prefer to appear to have it all together.” “Geographically based communities are a little hard to foster these days,” Dr Dusingize says, explaining that people create other types of communities appropriate to the style of modern society (sports clubs, gender clubs, etc.). “Strong bonds amongst members are not always necessary in these groups. Additionally, there are online communities that hinder in-person interactions.” Besides, there isn’t much time for lengthy conversations in the brief span between opening and closing of the gate while bypassing each other on our way to work. One other reason for the decline in these interactions is the strong inclination we have for privacy, which renders the concept of foraging for relationships with neighbours obsolete. We have spent so long building walls to protect our privacy that we forgot to build a door. Invasion of personal space. Wild speculation and conspiracy theories. Neighbours looking in our windows seems like too much trouble. But that’s because technological advancement and our high affinity for privacy have worked hand in hand to slowly chip away at our resistance to solely virtual relationships. Isn’t it ironic though, that we keep preaching about privacy but spend most of our time showcasing more than just snippets of our lives on social media? As Maxine from “Ginny and Georgia” (a TV show) said, many of us would have our phones surgically embedded into our palms if we could. “In many cases,” Dr Dusingize continues, “physical engagement in other groups is calculated and not spontaneous. With your neighbours, however, you share a sense of community identification which goes beyond a commitment to a handful of specialised clubs. Other groups have focused on and developed efficient targets to meet.” Key elements for the establishment of a community include location, interaction time and frequency. We are big girls and boys. We are perfectly capable of taking care of ourselves on our own, as we always have. But doesn’t it help to know that assistance could be available just next door when you need it? Have no idea where to begin? Try meeting your neighbours on the next Umuganda (community work) and see where that takes you all. Or we can continue being chained to these screens desperate for hits of dopamine. Does it actually make us more fulfilled?